Those who study the Sputnik Crisis are forever correcting the general public for improperly deploying the Sputnik Crisis as an analogy to some modern foreign-policy challenge. There are no perfect metaphors, of course, but the shock that followed a Chinese spy balloon’s trip across the North American landmass this month and the West’s improvisatory response to it suggests that it really was a seminal geopolitical event. If it weren’t, we might expect to see fewer unknown objects being blown out of the sky by fighter aircraft.

On Sunday afternoon, an F-16 jet shot down an unidentified object flying at about 20,000 feet over Lake Huron. While officials have not yet elaborated on what exactly the object was, it was said to pose a threat to civilian aircraft. By elaborating on the specific menace posed by this object—”an octagonal structure with strings hanging off but no discernible payload,” according to one administration source—defense officials provided the public with at least some rationale to justify its destruction. By this time, shoot-downs like these had already become an unnervingly regular occurrence. The nature of the threats posed by objects that were shot down earlier this weekend still remains a mystery.

Acting on the behest of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, American warplanes destroyed an  object on Saturday over Canadian territory. The one was described as “small” and “cylindrical,” flew at 40,000 feet, and “posed a reasonable threat,” according to one Canadian official. A day earlier, an object that Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick described as “about the size of a small car” was destroyed by two F-22 warplanes off the coast of Deadhorse, Alaska.

It’s tough to avoid wild speculation, what with the skies over North America having become a live-fire zone. But that is what the public has been reduced to by virtue of the White House’s general reluctance to disclose details about these incidents. It’s possible that silence is their best option. Speaking to whoever was willing to talk on background, New York Times reporters found no consensus on what the objects were, where they originated from, or what their purpose was.

North America’s shoot-first posture is, however, a significant departure from how Washington responded to the infamous balloon that traversed the breadth of the American continent before the president ordered it shot down over the coast of Carolina on February 4. In the interim, defense officials indicated that incursions into American airspace by foreign objects weren’t a unique occurrence, retroactively identifying many earlier penetrations of American airspace. NORAD responded by broadening the aperture of its radar systems and discovered that “the number of objects it detected increased sharply,” according to the Times. China is itching to demonstrate its capabilities, and Beijing is reportedly looking for objects in its airspace that it, too, might blow up. That’s a lot of shooting by two major powers at each other’s assets for what are still nebulous reasons.

In the immediate wake of the first major balloon incursion (one of two simultaneous incursions into the Western Hemisphere), many mocked the apprehension that seized geopolitical observers. There was more than a hint of Cold War nostalgia, critics said, in those who called for a more aggressive response from the Biden administration or warned of the prospect of a “balloon gap” with the Chinese. But there are parallels that link this moment to the 20th-century contest between the West and Soviet Union, including the so-called Sputnik Moment.

Unlike the Soviet Union’s demonstration of its capacity to put an object into stable earth orbit in 1957, the balloon wars do not raise questions about the West’s technical inferiority. There are, however, striking equivalencies between then and now, particularly as they relate to the psychological and paradigmatic transformations the Soviet achievement imposed on Americans.

By many accounts, the Soviets were surprised by the dramatic reaction to the world’s first artificial satellite in the U.S. as it only demonstrated technological capabilities on par with America’s. Then—and perhaps now—U.S. officials couldn’t do much to correct the anxiety-producing misapprehension that the West was losing the race for both space and a reliable intercontinental ballistic-missile program. Indeed, there were few incentives to do so. That anxiety advanced the interests of those in the West who supported a policy of confronting the Soviets from a position of material strength.

This crisis of self-confidence eventually gave way to the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the “Space Race” and its associated agencies, and the overhaul of the American education system with the aim of producing more domestic scientists and engineers. The Sputnik Moment also justified some risky gambits, such as the development of a secret intelligence-gathering facility in Pakistan that dispatched U-2 spy planes over Soviet territory—one of which was brought down inside the Soviet Union along with pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960.

We don’t know enough about any of the post-February 4 objects to render a judgment about the threat they pose or who, precisely, is doing the threatening. But the West’s reaction to that balloon is instructive. America’s defense posture shifted almost overnight toward enhanced scrutiny of its airspace. Pivoting from the paralytic reaction to the balloon that started it all, the U.S. apparently has no compunction about neutralizing unknown objects before they’ve had the chance to execute their missions, whatever they may be. These events take place against the backdrop of a genuine, sober, and bipartisan assumption among U.S. lawmakers that China’s rise presents a potentially existential threat to the American-led geopolitical order.

The Cold War began long before the Soviets achieved escape velocity. The threat posed by the Communist Bloc was apparent to all who were willing to see it at least a decade earlier. It did, however, focus American minds. The competition with the USSR wouldn’t be limited to distant theaters where only clandestine operatives and proxy armies would fight. The threat was to the American homeland. Likewise, the threat to America’s core strategic interests posed by resurgent great powers should have been undeniable by 2014, after Russia invaded and annexed sovereign European territory for the first time since 1945. But the naïve could place their hopes in the notion that far-off conflicts would remain far-off. As the wreckage of foreign surveillance devices rains down over the American continent, the hopeful should by now be disabused of their optimism.

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